Is it okay to ride a lame horse? The generic answer is NO.
There is one exception. If the lameness your horse has is chronic, something like an old injury that just won't change because of scar tissue, etc., then... it might be safe and sound to assume you can work with this horse for the sake of his mental fitness. That is if he's the type of horse that needs mental stimulus. If he wants it.
Some horses don't want exercise and don't need it in the same way. But some do. If you have the horse that needs mental stimulation and they just limp around a bit, as they warm up, well... I can relate. I have chronic soreness in one knee. I can't exactly perform like I did when I was young. I limp about a bit just to get going. Once warmed up, however, I can function almost 90%. The point is, just because I'm not perfectly sound, I still want to move, exercise, function and enjoy my life as best as I can. Some horses need this too.
If I see a student working with an unsound horse, I ALWAYS ask for some history before assuming they are ignorant of the soreness. I met three types of people regarding all this. The first always says they know about the soreness, they've done their due diligence and it's perfectly safe to carry on at a restricted pace. The second type says they weren't aware of the soreness and feel inclined to do something about it asap. The third type says they were aware but don't care, or they pretend it doesn't exist because their personal outcomes were more important than the horse's health.
Would it shock you to hear, I've been all three at different points in my life? Not without guilt, but it's true. The younger version of me was not balanced in my goals vs the horse's health. Luckily I had instructors call me out on it early. I've also been unaware at times and I cringe when I think of the horse being sore and not know it. Sometimes you can't see it and it comes out as a different type of reaction. Pain can be hidden if you don't know what you're looking for. I've also had horses that had chronic health issues and I found it important to maintain some level of mental and physical stimulus just to keep them happy and fulfilled. Contrary to what some extreme naturalist trainers say, horses do love interaction, especially if it's positive.
And, we've all seen horses that we think should rest and the minute they get out in an open space they run about like they're bulletproof. Sometimes this is bad for them and we try to manage the exuberance. Other times I feel like saying, if they believe they can, who am I to say they can't? I'm aware their excess energy could injure them further, but if the injury is nothing anyone can heal, I feel like it's okay for a horse to be a horse and have a different sort of career than the standard performance horse. It can still be fantastic and playful and it can be okay, at times, to let the horses manage themselves. But when it comes to riding... At some point, you have to stop riding for you and start riding for your horse.
If you make the experience about them too, you won't miss the important signals telling you what you're doing is too much. I know it's a shift in thinking. Riding can be so much fun and it's easy to think the horse is having fun too, because you are. But the truth is, we have to dig a little deeper and truly make sure the horse has a great experience too. That doesn't mean an experience without challenges and obstacles to overcome. It means, at the end of the day, the horse feels amazing. Just like you would if you took on something new or challenging and felt like a winner.
What about drugs to help your horse? Short answer... How do you feel about it? On a personal note, being human, I take painkillers about once a week when I can't cope with a migraine headache. I know there are people out there that feel differently. It's fine. That's why I ask. How do you feel about it? I appreciate that I can still function with the support of mild supplements. I believe my horse is the same. I currently have two retired horses that happily roam the pasture and do some minor work with the assistance of a daily dose of mild pain killers. You have to weigh the possible side effects with the benefits and make your own decisions. Generally, however, it's frowned upon to hide an injury with painkillers, especially if it's a new injury. It's all too possible to exasperate the problem by hiding it.
Have you got a horse that needs extra support? Have you got a horse that would love to exercise but an old injury plagues her or him? It may be okay to continue riding. It may be beneficial in fact. Weigh out the pros and cons and make a decision with the help of a good vet if you can. The reason I wrote this article is to make sure there is a voice out there for the horses that are misunderstood. Not all lameness is an off switch for your horse's career and relationship with you. There may be a whole world of great things you can do together. Don
With Mastery Horsemanship
I write to inspire, educate and encourage you on your horse and personal journey.
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